THINGS I LEARNED FROM MAKING "WHAT IF" A.K.A. "THE F WORD"

A movie I wrote called THE F WORD - a.k.a. WHAT IF - came out a year ago today. Here are some things I learned from the process of making it.
  1. 1.
    The precise order of words in a joke matters and the wrong arrangement affects the laugh. So being finicky about it is important, even if no one will understand why until the movie comes out. Actually, no one will understand why then either, so you just have to take secret pleasure in getting it right.
  2. 2.
    But no amount of finicky wordsmithing matters if what's happening on the actors' faces isn't believable. Even in an excessively verbal movie, the audience's emotional experience is happening on the nonverbal level.
  3. 3.
    The atmosphere the director cultivates on set between takes is just as important as what's happening between "action" and "cut". You can have luminous skin but if your veins and bones and organs don't work, you're dead.
  4. 4.
    When the crew laughs at a take, it feels great in the moment and only later will you realize the performance is too broad. The actor is playing to the room, not to the camera.
  5. 5.
    A hysterically funny improv can save a scene. A hysterically funny improv can also ruin a scene.
  6. 6.
    Some words have no good substitutes and you just can't swap them out for something else without damaging the dialogue's rhythm. "Fingerbang" is one of those words.
  7. 7.
    The harder a moment was to get on set, the less inclined you'll be to cut it in post. But you have to let go of the experience of making the movie and see this thing you've spent years working on the way someone will who is watching it for the first time. Probably on their phone.
  8. 8.
    But your experience of the movie, in the end, is the experience of making the movie. Once it's done, you give it away. You'll never experience it on its own terms the way the audience does so you have to get whatever reward, knowledge, and inspiration you can from the process.
  9. 9.
    There's always a funnier joke. But moments of truth are few and far between.
  10. 10.
    People will complain about your juvenile poop jokes until you submit to the MPAA and they interrogate even the most discreet sexual references and ignore even the most depraved poop joke. The MPAA doesn't give a shit about shit.
  11. 11.
    When you go on a press tour and have to answer the same question ten times in a row for ten days in a row, you feel like a lying fraud because you're repeating the same answer over and over like a creepy politician, Except it's the actual true answer. Repetition makes the truth feel like bullshit.
  12. 12.
    If you're lucky and win a bunch of awards or whatever, you don't actually feel any validation, because you spent so many years working in anonymity that you had to learn to self-validate through hard work and high standards, and this is good.
  13. 13.
    You spend months and months in post watching the movie hundreds of times with temp songs on the soundtrack. So whenever you see the finished film, the actual score of your movie sounds wrong.
  14. 14.
    You don't finish writing the movie on the first or even the last day of production. You're still writing the movie all through post.
  15. 15.
    There's a big difference between an actor improvising in character and an actor ad-libbing jokes they personally find funny. Both can be hilarious but the latter can very subtly throw a scene off-balance. Improvising in character is an amazing skill.
  16. 16.
    There is no correlation between the scene that was hardest to write and the scene that was hardest to shoot. On set, nobody cares how hard a scene was to write. In the audience, nobody cares how hard a scene was to shoot.
  17. 17.
    Producers tend to believe you can solve a problem with ADR and you never can. You can maybe conceal the problem, but it's always a crappy bandage.
  18. 18.
    50% of everything you need to know to be an effective screenwriter, you only learn on set watching your words brought to life by the cast and crew. So until you have that experience you're only accessing half of what you need to know to do the job right.
  19. 19.
    When shoot a cameo in your own movie, you find out just how insanely hard it is to perform believable human emotions in front of a camera surrounded by dozens of crew members and that even the worst actor you've ever worked with is outrageously brave and the truly great actors are way, way, way more talented than you realized.
  20. 20.
    If you don't genuinely love to collaborate, if discovering what your work evokes in others doesn't thrill you, if you're always worrying about what your creative partners are getting wrong instead of delighting at what they're making even better, screenwriting probably isn't for you.